Today, April 26, 2022, the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), Freedom House, PEN America, and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) issued the following joint statement on the ludicrous verdicts handed down yesterday in Turkey’s Gezi Park trial, including to civil society leader Osman Kavala:

On Monday, April 25, 2022, an Istanbul court sentenced prominent Turkish philanthropist and civic leader Osman Kavala to life in prison without parole for “attempting to overthrow the Turkish government by force” by allegedly orchestrating Turkey’s leaderless and largely peaceful 2013 Gezi Park protests—the largest against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s rule to date. The court also sentenced seven other defendants—Ali Hakan Altınay, Can Atalay, Yiğit Ali Ekmekçi, Tayfun Kahraman, Çiğdem Mater, Mine Özerden, and Mücella Yapıcı—to 18 years in prison for supporting Kavala’s alleged effort and ordered their immediate imprisonment. The nine remaining defendants, including prominent journalist Can Dündar and American scholar Henri Barkey, who are outside the country and were therefore tried in absentia will be prosecuted again in another proceeding. Yesterday’s convictions—and the prosecution writ large of these 17 people—are baseless and a travesty of justice, a profoundly disturbing example of Erdoğan’s weaponization of the judiciary against peaceful dissent.

The “Gezi case” is among the most notorious and deliberately convoluted political prosecutions pursued by Erdoğan’s government. In 2019, nearly six years after the Gezi protests, an Istanbul court put Kavala and 15 other civil society leaders on trial on ludicrous charges of organizing and sponsoring the mass grassroots demonstrations. The case was based on a rambling and surreal 657-page indictment narrating a wild, anti-Western conspiracy theory that likened the Gezi protests to a coup attempt and civil society work to espionage and that failed to connect the defendants to criminal wrongdoing. Following a flawed trial presided over by a changing cast of judges, the court delivered a rare victory for justice in the country by unexpectedly acquitting the defendants in February 2020. After Erdoğan lashed out against the surprise verdict, however, a different court nullified the ruling in January 2021 and ordered a retrial, which began in May 2021 (and came to include Barkey). In the meantime, the government launched investigations into the judges who had ordered the acquittals. 

The retrial was also marked by an appalling lack of due process. The judges, the court, and even the defendants changed several times. In yesterday’s session, some of the judges did not even pay attention to the defense’s closing arguments, playing with their phones instead. And after a defense attorney brought up the effort by one of the presiding judges to join the ranks of Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2018, the judge refused to recuse himself from the trial, arguing that the defense was “attempting to prolong the prosecution.”

The saga of Kavala, the only defendant imprisoned throughout the Gezi trial, is even more outrageous. Kavala is a peaceful philanthropist and leading civic activist who has devoted his life and wealth to expanding civic freedoms in Turkey. Held in solitary confinement in a maximum-security prison since his initial arrest in November 2017, he was re-arrested mere hours after his February 2020 acquittal, this time on new and equally baseless charges of aiding in the 2016 military coup attempt against Erdoğan and espionage. Those charges were later merged into the Gezi retrial, though he was acquitted of the espionage charge in yesterday’s verdict. 

Kavala’s cruel and unjust imprisonment for four and a half years has not only further devastated Turkey’s international image, drawing condemnation from 10 of Turkey’s transatlantic allies and from leading human rights organizations. It has also brought Turkey to the brink of expulsion from the Council of Europe (CoE), Europe’s oldest institution with a mandate to uphold human rights and the rule of law. Having failed to comply with the CoE’s December 2019 order to immediately release Kavala, Turkey is now undergoing infringement proceedings that could eventually see it removed as a member of the Council. In its history, the CoE has only launched such serious proceedings against one other member, Azerbaijan, in 2017. The only member that the Council has ever suspended is Russia, which was expelled last month due to its brutal and illegal invasion of Ukraine. 

We urge Turkish authorities to rectify these appalling convictions and set all defendants free immediately and unconditionally in accordance with the rule of law. Turkey must uphold its international obligations and urgently cease its unlawful and unjust prosecution of peaceful civil society activists, opposition members, journalists, academics, and others for political reasons. 

Photo Credit: Illustration by Murat Başol via Twitter